Vito Russo’s Secret Papers Unsealed

Michael Schiavi. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 23, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2016.

When I started working on Vito Russo’s biography in 2007, I had hometown access to his papers at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Arnie Kantrowitz, his best friend and literary executor, had deposited them there in 1995. Along with the 200 interviews I conducted of Russo’s surviving friends and family, the NYPL archives would tell his full story. I hoped. But there was a problem. Russo’s will stipulated that five boxes of his papers would remain sealed until 25 years after his death, which would be November 7, 2015. What could be hidden in those boxes? Arnie kindly interceded for me with the head of NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives division. As Russo’s literary executor, could he request early cracking of the five seals? “Absolutely not.”

Vito Russo (1946-1990) is a name that may be familiar to most readers of this magazine. Russo was a pioneering gay rights and AIDS activist and the author of The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981; revised, 1987), which became the foundational text of gay and lesbian media studies and later the inspiration for a much-praised documentary, The Celluloid Closet (1995). A co-founder of GLAAD and ACT UP, he was also the posthumous star of his own documentary, Vito (2012). This film and my biography, Celluloid Activist (2011), give his full history, so I won’t recount it here. But back to the sealed archives and the secrets they revealed upon their opening late last year.

The dilemma I faced was this: could I really tell Russo’s life story without access to all of his papers? This question grew more perplexing as I plunged into the available archives, particularly Russo’s journals, where he painted his indefatigable sex life in Technicolor detail. He wasn’t afraid to trash contemporaries, discuss his love of pot and Quaaludes, or dissect his romantic failures. Given these revelations, what more could there be? What secrets needed 25 years’ protection? I used to joke that the five boxes would reveal Russo as a transgender Nazi sympathizer. But I also worried that they might reveal gaps in my knowledge of his life that made it into my published biography. One day, I vowed, I’d return to the NYPL for the full truth.

That day finally arrived in July 2016.Boxes 1 to5 of the Vito Russo Papers were now unsealed and available for public view. I opened Box 1 with trembling hands. The first letter, dated March 25, 1969, came from a friend bemoaning that the “Stonewall is going to pieces”- three months before the famous Riots. This news is followed by chatty correspondence from Bette Midler, underground gay filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and gay activists Pete Fisher, Morris Kight, and John Paul Hudson, who attacked anti-drag lesbian feminists for their “failure to realize [that] the right to dress as we choose is the core of the struggle- and that we are all transvestites of one kind of another.” This was a hot controversy in 1973, but why did it have to be buried until 2015? One might ask the same about a lovely note from Lotte Lenya, who in June 1976 denounced a “recent Supreme Court decision which makes private gay consenting adults subject to criminal prosecution.” Lenya considered the decision a “form of treason” against democracy and granted Russo permission to read her comments at the upcoming Central Park Gay Pride Rally, which he was co-hosting.

More understandable, perhaps, was his embargo on a postcard from his buddy Arthur Bell, a Village Voice columnist who described Kris Kristofferson as “stoned out of his skull” at a Star Is Born (1976) concert shoot. Russo may have feared legal action if it went public. Bell also quoted Stockard Channing’s claim that director James Bridges was in love with John Travolta, and he blasted Bette Midler, whom gays had “created.” Now, he carped, “[s]he’s rich. We’re poor. I think I’ll give the whole thing up and tour the provinces in Mame” Funny, mildly provocative, but actionable?

Russo tangled with columnist Liz Smith, who, long before acknowledging relationships with women in her memoir, Natural Blonde (2000), attacked Harvey Fierstein for thanking his lover when accepting a 1984 Tony Award for La Cage aux Folles. Smith labeled Fierstein’s acknowledgment “tasteless” and received a furious rebuke from Russo, who had earlier upbraided Smith’s “closet mentality,” screaming: “People like you might be scared of the so called backlash but you shouldn’t drag everyone back into the shadows with you. Shame on you.” Liz replied that she was not “scared-it’s just that your style is not my style.” Russo received a more supportive demurral from Barry Manilow, who thanked him for “understanding my point of view” while insisting that he was “in total support of what you’re trying to do. Always have been. How can I help.”

The “closet mentality” was exactly what Russo most deplored in Hollywood films. The Production Code (1930-1968) attempted to erase homosexuals from the screen. It also prompted the relentless portrayal of gay and lesbian characters as less sane, less happy, less human than straight ones. He decided to document these portrayals en masse in order to illustrate their collateral damage. His first compilation was a clip-laden lecture series titled “The Celluloid Closet,” which he delivered at colleges. As his catalogue of references grew, he determined to expand his lecture into a book-length study, which eventually became The Celluloid Closet. His primary goal was to challenge the mindset that reductively defined gay people solely by their sexuality while allowing straight characters to be developed more fully. To an editor at Prentice-Hall he wrote: “You don’t walk out of a theater after seeing The Exorcist and say ‘Well, now I know all about heterosexuals and what they are like’ simply because the main characters happen to be heterosexuals.” But mainstream viewers were very likely to make such an assumption about the characters in The Boys in the Band.

Correspondence about The Celluloid Closet comprises much of the newly opened archive. Russo received early encouragement from Ray Bradbury, who called the project “long overdue.” Bradbury also advised Russo to use humor in his writing and not come across as too “True Believer-ish” for fear of alienating less initiated readers. Director Bryan Forbes (King Rat, 1965; The Stepford Wives, 1975) echoed Bradbury’s warning on tone, commenting: “I think the trouble today [1978] is that homosexuality has become blurred by the Gay Lesbian Movement-which like many such organizations is somewhat short in self-humor.”

Russo had to stay positive through an array of rejections from celebrities whom he had contacted for interviews. Snooty assistants informed him that Miss Bacall, working on her autobiography, was not granting interviews; Miss Hellman was “away from New York” and not planning to return anytime soon. Christopher Isherwood, when asked for his comments on homosexuality in Cabaret, simply directed Russo to page 62 of his memoir, Christopher and His Kind. Rod Steiger’s PR guy sent a terse brush-off, while a friendlier flack informed Russo that he couldn’t reach Richard Burton and regretted to report that “Elizabeth says ‘No.’“ Paul Newman, Taylor’s co-star in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, told Russo in May 1978 that he was booked “well into 1980,” so no thanks. Russo contacted Susannah York about playing a lesbian in The Killing of Sister George, and she sniffed that she hated “dealing in generalizations,” but if he insisted, she could only say that her character, Alice, “was first of all, a human being, a person. Only secondarily, or third, or fourthly, a Lesbian.” Such insights a book do not make.

Luckily, Russo also received thoughtful responses from many writers, actors, and directors. Some responses that do not appear in the finished Closet are also worth reporting. When asked about his screenplay for Ben-Hur, Gore Vidal replied: “I have no copy of the script and last saw this bad movie 20 years ago”-but went on to detail, as he later would in the film of Celluloid Closet, the homoerotic subtext that he slipped past an oblivious (and homophobic) Charlton Heston. Screenwriter Stewart Stern was “happy” to discuss homosexuality in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. But he also suggested a broader approach: “It would be interesting to trace the theme of friendship in my work; it seems to me strong bonds are discernible, and even motivating, in nearly all of it.” Homoerotic friendship ended up a major theme in The Celluloid Closet, anchored by discussion of Stern’s screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause.

Of his From Here to Eternity screenplay, Daniel Taradash remarked that while he found the gay plot elements of James Jones’ novel “extremely interesting and well written and I suspect quite honest,” it wasn’t possible to film them in 1953 under the watchful eye of the Production Code. As Taradash recalled, “We didn’t even use the word ‘damn’ in the picture and switching the New Congress to a ‘club’ was considered an inspiration as a substitute for a whorehouse.” Christopher Reeve sent Russo paragraphs of reflections on the gay sociopath he played in Deathtrap. Reeve stated that he “didn’t camp up the part at all or try to act gay, although I picked clothes for Clifford that I’ve seen gays wear butch boots and feminine sweater, for example.” Reeve explained that director Sidney Lumet wanted him and co-star Michael Caine to seem like a recognizable “married couple,” albeit one in which each spouse has murder on his mind.

After being rejected by eighteen presses, The Celluloid Closet was eventually published by Harper & Row. Its immediate success is apparent in the multitude of letters from friends in 1981 complaining that they didn’t have Russo’s newly unlisted phone number. Numerous readers wrote to complain about his omission of their favorite proto-homo gem. (Desert Fury came up frequently.)

The lion’s share of newly seen responses to Celluloid Closet were raves from people who connected powerfully with its subject matter and tone. A young bisexual woman in rural Pennsylvania wrote that she was “trembling” with identification upon finishing the book. Another fan, who mentioned a wife and three children, shared lengthy thoughts on 1930s and ’40s gay film characters. A college junior in Michigan was so moved that he made Russo a singular offer: “If you ever need someone to talk to, at any time, whatever the reason, I would feel most honored if you would call on me”-just “no later than 2 a.m.” Several months after the book’s publication, Russo lectured at the Chicago International Film Festival, where one young man was astonished to see him “actually standing up in front of a huge crowd of people talking about being gay! I remember thinking, ‘My God, this man is amazing. And he’s gay, just like me. Maybe it would be O.K. for me to be amazing, too.’“

In Chicago, Russo also screened a bootleg copy of Bette Midler performing at the Continental Baths in 1971. A few months later, he showed this footage again as a fundraiser for Out of Order, a documentary-in-progress that eventually became the oscar-winning Times of Harvey Milk. When John Graham, who shot the Midler video at the Continental, learned of the benefit, he fired off a letter to inform Midler’s attorney. This previously hidden letter portrays a surprisingly mercenary Russo. Graham claims that he introduced Russo to Midler in her dressing room, forming, along with her friends Bill Hennessy and Ben Gillespie, a close-knit “family” that enjoyed film screenings at Gillespie’s SoHo loft. Graham thus allowed Russo to make one of only three copies of his video, a substandard 16mm kinescope transfer from the original tape. The result, Graham claimed, was “never, under any circumstances, to be shown outside [Russo’s] own living room or used publicly in any way.” With the Chicago and Out of Order screenings, Russo showed “a shocking disregard for everyone concerned except himself.”

Now threatened with legal action from Bette Midler, Russo agreed never again to show the tape publicly, but refused to relinquish his copy. Only for Out of Order, he maintained, did he try to make money from Midler’s performance. In Chicago, he offered a free screening to festival members. He poured out his frustration to Bonnie Bruckheimer, with whom Midler cofounded All Girl Productions: “The fact that my integrity in this matter has been called into question causes me real pain. I may have been overzealous in the past but never exploitative or malicious.” Russo’s sense of injustice is qualified by his later screening of the tape for the patrons of RSVP Cruises.

Nor were these his only questionable copyright moves. The newly opened archives contain a threatening query from ABC Picture Holdings, wondering just how and where Russo obtained permission for the Sister George clips in his lectures. An associate at Britain’s Kobal Collection Limited expressed polite dismay at his leaving the country with stills from films whose images he was considering for his book. “If you’ve made your selection,” the Kobal employee inquired, “can we look forward to having [the stills] back soon?”

Russo’s answer goes unrecorded, but a picture of his ruthlessness is inescapable. In 1981, a notable gay novelist informed Russo that he had avoided him for a long time following Russo’s “abrasiveness” on a panel, his “squelch[ing]” of the writer in a “brusque New York style” after the man refused to be “browbeaten” into accepting Russo’s arguments on the necessity of positive gay images. Russo’s shutdown of communication also appears in correspondence with Jeffrey Sevcik, the love of his life, with whom he shared a strained five-year relationship. After one of the several times that Russo threw Sevcik out of his apartment, Sevcik wrote a pointed accusation: “You changed; you became a very different person. And you never even acknowledged that anything was happening. You checked out never saying goodbye or telling me where it was you were going.” Sevcik freely admitted that he was too aimless and emotionally dependent on Russo, but his criticism reveals his lover’s insistence on having his own way, whether personally or professionally.

Russo didn’t have the leisure to ponder these flaws at length. In the midst of their relationship woes, Sevcik discovered that he had AIDS, followed by Russo’s own diagnosis in August 1985. Sevcik died within a year, leaving a grief-stricken Russo to fight his illness alone at a time when the only FDA-approved antiviral, AZT, saddled him with leg pain, anemia, and insomnia. His correspondence of this period contains much loving encouragement. Handwritten sympathy arrived from Peter Allen and Geraldine Page, while Pedro Almodóvar and Ian McKellen sent notes calculated to make Russo smile, as when McKellen, about to stage a one-night revival of Bent in 1989, sighed: “Out with the wrinkle cream and the girdle.” Other friends, aware that Russo’s self-image was plummeting as he contended with KS lesions, tried to restore the sexy sass that had been his trademark. “Is it true, Vito,” queried Rita Mae Brown, “that you can suck the taillights off a Chevy?” Shortly before Russo’s death, former trick Michael Greer, star of the early gay movies The Gay Deceivers and Fortune and Men ‘s Eyes, confessed to him: “I guess I’ve never shared with you what a stoner great fuck you were … and still are”-to the point of continuing to inspire Greer’s fantasies fourteen years later.

In 1987, seven months after co-founding act up, Russo told Rita Mae Brown that he had adopted a policy against writing about AIDS: “I don’t want to have to live with it all day and sit down and write about it at night.” Unfortunately, written reminders of AIDS surrounded him. Longtime friend Craig Rowland, who would die just three months after Russo, quoted an AIDS support-group quip: “How long have you guys been dead?” A friend on Fire Island wrote of the “ghosts” haunting his visit, particularly his “beloved Peter with his brushes and pencils, Diego with her heels and her rage, Sal with his big schlong and ever loving, warm grin and on and on.” Following his last Pride march, which he attended in June 1990 on Larry Kramer’s Fifth Avenue balcony, Russo was livid to find an unflattering photo of himself in People, along with comments ignoring the five frantic years he’d spent fighting illness. “Just exactly how do you think I feel,” he fumed, “when I read that I’m one of Larry Kramer’s ‘dying friends,’ one of the ‘doomed spectators’ watching the parade from the terrace?”

Poverty was also grinding Russo down. As a freelance writer, he’d always lived hand-to-mouth and depended on the kindness of friends and strangers alike. Emergency funds from Lily Tomlin and Martin Duberman helped, as did a surprise $1,000 from PEN in its effort to help writers with AIDS, but these were only stopgap solutions. In his final year, Russo taught two phenomenally successful courses, “Documenting Gay Activism” and “The Celluloid Closet,” at UC-Santa Cruz. His 200 students adored him, but after taxes and expenses, he netted only $6,000. It made him sympathize with his friend Arthur Evans, co-founder of Gay Activists Alliance and a strong early influence on Russo’s own activism. Twenty years after Stonewall, as the veteran of countless demos, “hideous, never-ending meetings,” and a “torrent of provocative letters and articles and lectures,” Evans found that he could still barely pay his rent or even, on occasion, buy food. “The girl’s tired, Vito,” he admitted. Russo concurred, sometimes displaying his exhaustion to friends who weren’t about to let the fighter rest. “Live, asshole, live!” screamed Harvey Fierstein. “Since when did you start looking for guarantees? Tote the barge and lift that bale! You’ll be around long after any disease!”

Two weeks before his death, Russo quoted one of his screen idols, Susan Hayward in I Want to Live: “Let’s face it, honey, I’m in a real jam this time.” He had KS in one lung and in his bone marrow, was undergoing chemo, and needed a full-time care team of friends to get through each day. Nevertheless, he found the energy to write a former UC student whose boyfriend had just died of AIDS. In this letter, the last contained in Russo’s archives, he mentioned that he was still considering a return to Santa Cruz in the Winter 1991 term. Spreading the gospel of gay history and film, particularly to young people, mattered more than a fatal illness.

Five days later, Russo entered NYU Medical Center for the last time. Five years later, Arnie Kantrowitz donated Russo’s papers to NYPL. Twenty-one years further on, I’m honored to study papers deemed too personal for immediate access. Scandalous they generally aren’t. But they do offer a richer portrait of this passionate, funny, sometimes difficult, always loving activist: America’s fiercest film queen, one whose political legacy reaches far into a century he never knew.